Dalits Kept As Cleaners

The ‘Toilet Man’ of India

Vidya Bhushan Rawat

[The founder of Sulabh International, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, passed away in a hospital in Delhi a few days back. Pathak was 80 and was known as the ‘toilet man’ of India. He is said to have brought ‘revolution’ to the toilet system in India by introducing the concept of ‘paid toilet’ system.]

However, the fact is, Sulabh International, which claimed to have ‘eradicated’ untouchability, actually became the biggest beneficiary of the hypocrisy of a society which refuses to pay honourably to a community which is enslaved. Community people continue to work as manual scavengers. They suffer humiliation, socially, economically and culturally. They have been reduced to symbolism of all varieties of people right from Pathak to Narendra Modi.

While Sulabh’s pay-and-use toilet model has been a hugely successful business model that gave both Pathak and his organisation millions of rupees, unfortunately it could not become a model to emancipate the plight of the manual scavengers, which he claimed had inspired him to do this work.

Pathak said in an interview about what made him do this work:

“When I was young, one of the many rules I had to follow was about not touching certain people. One day, out of curiosity, I touched a lady scavenger. My grandmother saw me and was so scandalised at the ‘sin’ I committed that she fed me cow-dung, sand, and Ganges water to purify my soul. Years later, I saw a young boy left to die in the rain after being gored by a bull. Nobody took him to the hospital because he was ‘untouchable’.

“Those incidents made me challenge our system that rewards an honest day’s work–cleaning latrines–with scorn and humiliation. I joined the Bihar Gandhi Birth Centenary Celebration Committee in 1968 because I wanted what Gandhi himself wanted–to bring back the rights and dignity of the ‘untouchables.’ One problem he had, though, was that no technology could yet replace the bucket latrines, which required scavengers for cleaning. That’s why I developed the Sulabh toilet, biogas digester, and other technologies.”
For long, Pathak and Sulabh used Gandhiji’s thought of ‘Harijan’ for ‘eradicating’ manual scavenging. One rarely found him talking about Dr BR Ambedkar for the emancipation of Dalits. His initiatives were important if used as a method to emancipate the Dalits, but unfortunately it became a tool for gaining wider publicity and brought huge profit to his organisation.

In the early 1990s, Sulabh International gained ground in Delhi as it started a centre at Palam Dabari Road. The toilet museum there is really good and gives one the history of the toilets world over. Pathak’s initial plan was to use the issue of manual scavengers and their liberation as the target to reach the power groups in Delhi. He knew well that it is easier to access the power politics of Delhi using Gandhiji’s name.

In Delhi, Pathak made Dr Mulk Raj Anand, the famous author of ‘Untouchables’, as patron. Dr Anand was an internationally known personality and passionate about the eradication of manual scavenging. Pathak’s idea was that once the latrine system is revolutionised through the flush toilet system, the manual scavenging would go. He and his team used the symbols of the novel ‘Untouchables’.

It was translated into Hindi and many street plays were organised in Delhi. On October 2, much publicised work was done in Delhi in which some of the top ‘intellectuals’ and bureaucrats were asked to adopt a family of manual scavengers on the Gandhi Jayanti Day. If anything none of the dignitaries ever invited any person from the manual scavenging community to their home.

This so-called adoption of the families of manual scavengers at Pathak’s programme on October 2 was a hogwash. The fact is that he was using different methods to get access to power and gain legitimacy to his corporatisation process.

He knew: legitimacy would only come when he would claim that he was not doing business but ‘social reform’, though anyone can vouch how many Dalits were heading his funds, projects and even the Sulabh Shauchalayas in the prime locations of the cities. His media team was powerful, well-connected and the Gandhi Jayanti day would be used as the day of emancipation of manual scavengers.

Slowly, reaching the power structure and getting bigger contracts from the government to build and maintain Sulabh Shauchalayas in the prime location of the cities became his sole agenda. The toilet system was commercialised. Pathak and his team knew well that people needed a public utility system near railway and bus stations etc., and the government wanted to get rid of maintaining them. Hence Sulabh came in as a big rescue.

Just imagine the Old Delhi Railway Station, where a public toilet system gives you access at Rs 5 or Rs 10 for using it. In a day if 5,000 people use it, the amount of money from just one place would be huge. Slowly, Sulabh became almighty, powerful. It has already attracted senior civil servants, who are now part of its structure.

Sulabhs were started in Bihar, but now they are all over the country. It is pure monopoly of a system. Of course, there were places where Sulabh was blacklisted in Delhi, but then it had powerful access to the government and its ministers, hence nothing happened to them. Sulabh would give awards to powerful personalities, including prime ministers. Chandrashekhar, Narsimha Rao, Manmohan Singh and Modi became his ardent fans. Of course, he was not comfortable with VP Singh.

Normally, Pathak rarely acknowledged Ambedkar, as he knew that Ambedkar’s vision for the emancipation of the Dalits is not based on charity of the dominant castes or savarnas but on Dalit rights. After the 1990s, VP Singh’s Mandal mantra made a huge dent on the social monopoly of the caste elite that compelled even Pathak to speak about Ambedkar, though reluctantly.

In an interview he said, in India, untouchables require social acceptance. He aligned his work with the guidelines given by Ambedkar to understand whether untouchability has been eradicated or not. “When everybody will go to a temple to worship, when everybody will take bath in the same pond, everyone will draw water from the same well, and everybody will dine together. I fulfilled all these in two towns one of which is Alwar (Rajasthan)”, he claimed.

Sulabh has a huge data base of the country, but one is not sure whether Pathak ever heard of Safai Karmchari Andolan led by Bezwada Wilson, who has been campaigning against untouchability and honourable rehabilitation of the safai karmcharis. He never spoke on the crisis of untouchability and its source, whether they were victims of the Brahmanical order.

In the last five years alone, over 347 people died cleaning the septic tanks or sewage lines. Pathak and his Sulabh never raised any concern about this. This is because Pathak was not just a simple contractor of the sanitation work but one who claimed that his idea to start Sulabh was the emancipation of the untouchables, particularly those from the manual scavenging communities. No emancipatory model can succeed without taking into account Dalit rights.

No doubt, the Sulabh model can become a powerful tool to eradicate manual scavenging and rehabilitate manual scavenging communities if the public toilets at prime locations of the cities are handed over to those who are engaged in manual scavenging. Let them enjoy the profit of these toilets.

Unfortunately, while the cleaners and workers of the toilets have mostly been unorganised workers of the manual scavenging communities, the managerial positions have always been dominated by the Brahmins from Bihar.

Would Sulabh which claims to work for the emancipation of Dalits provide proportional representation to Dalits in all its decision making bodies? If not, then it is fine to continue with its business model and acquire all the public toilets of the country. The monopoly of one organisation will never be a public good.

Pathak will be remembered as the pioneer of commercialising the public toilet system and making people aware of hygiene related to toilets, but he cannot be termed as the emancipator of the manual scavenging communities simply because his movement deviated more and more towards commercial gains, where community and individuals are merely symbols to be utilised during public events.

He was a successful entrepreneur who used a social evil of discrimination faced by manual scavengers to promote his own agenda of corporatisation of the public toilet system in India, which helped governments in abdicating its responsibility, but could not stop manual scavenging and the discrimination faced by the community.


Back to Home Page

Vol 56, No. 11, Sep 10 - 16, 2023